Thoughts on ARPA-E award winners

The Department of Energy's new "ARPA-E" program has released the list of winners of their first round of funding for advanced energy projects (note: the link goes to the ARPA-E home page and so will surely change, there doesn't seem to be a better one yet though). A version of the following comment was posted at DotEarth along with some others.

Most of them seem like good ideas. Some of them not so much. The $1 million to "Exelus, Inc" for recovering oil from refinery waste gas seems like pretty wrong-headed - very minimal possible impact, and it's a fossil fuel technology?! And the $2.65 million GM proposal, $3 million for Phononic Devices, and $1.7 million for U. of Illinois look like they're trying to violate the laws of thermodynamics (converting waste heat from electric generators or motors into more electricity). I don't like the sound of that, but perhaps details are more sensible than the brief descriptions.

To me there seemed an over-emphasis on bio-fuel solutions. I can understand the attraction and the hype those have received over time, but (A) biological systems are now significantly less efficient at capturing sunlight into useful forms than existing electro-mechanical systems, meaning they need more land-surface area, and (B) the one advantage bio-systems might have is the ability to grow and reproduce and take care of themselves without much human technological or labor assistance, but that advantage doesn't sound like it's there for most of the proposed bio-technologies on the list (algae and microbes and genetically modified plants). But better to spend a few million dollars to find out the real limitations of these systems than to spend billions in vain attempts to deploy them at scale when they simply don't work.

The biggest thing I think they should be funding is battery technology because of the huge diversity of implications if we can improve electricity storage, and that looks like it got many good proposals on the list, so I think that's something we should all be happy with. I would have liked to see more things in the building efficiency and wind-turbine categories because of their potential - only two wind proposals got funding. Maybe wind is too big a business now for small-scale research projects of this sort to actually be useful any more. And there was nothing at all on improving transmission, or "grid" technologies - maybe that's getting funding elsewhere, but it seemed like there were a lot of ideas out there on the subject, and it might be as big an issue as storage for the applicability of renewables in the long term.

Anyway, overall, not a bad collection of projects. But it would be really nice to see significantly higher levels of funding for ARPA-E as it moves forward (only about 1 in 100 submitted projects has been funded in this first round!)